When Isobel McArthur bought a pile of second-hand books from the treasure trove of Glasgow’s Voltaire and Rousseau bookshop, she never expected to end up playing Mr Darcy in a new stage version of Pride and Prejudice. This is exactly what’s happened, however, after McArthur’s co-founder of the Blood of the Young theatre company Paul Brotherston threw something of a wild card into the mix as the pair waded their way through the classics.
“Imagine an all-female cast in regency costume doing Pride and Prejudice with guitars is what he said,” says McArthur. “We’d bought all these books to see what might be interesting for us to adapt in the way of a classic. I think we both felt we wanted to do something that audiences who might not have any association with Jane Austen’s work could still have fun with and sparkle. It’s important for us that there’s no stuffiness there.”
The result is Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of), an irreverent take on Austen’s romp through the life and loves of the wilfully singular Elizabeth Bennett and her wayward road to romance with the dashing Mr Darcy. As scripted by McArthur, as well as featuring an all-female cast of five, Brotherston’s co-production between Blood of the Young and the Tron Theatre, Glasgow looks set to be enlivened by glitter balls, karaoke, balloons and guitars. Probably.
“Having an all-female ensemble was one of the criteria we set down from really on,” says McArthur. “The doubling up of parts becomes quite important for the sort of lean storytelling we wanted to have. It’s essentially the Pride and Prejudice story, but told by five servants who pick up the novel and act it out.”
And the karaoke?
“So many scenes in the novel are set at balls. They were exciting events for young women coming from that background, because that was where the match-making happened. We thought of doing something similar for now with karaoke, and putting a whole load of karaoke classics into the mix.”
McArthur had never read Pride and Prejudice prior to adapting it, so comes to it without any of the hand-me-down baggage an Austen aficionado might bring to the project.
“I’ve met a few people since we started working on the show who’ve said how they’ve always loved Pride and Prejudice, and how they read it when they were eleven, or who watched the BBC adaptation and loved it, but I never had any of that. There are other people I’ve spoken to who have all these stuffy connotations with the book, and I can sympathise with that, but in terms of coming to it with some kind of objectivity, it put me in a really strong position.
“We wanted our show to be something that was still set in the original time in history, but to be something that everybody could enjoy even if they didn’t know the novel. Coming to it fresh, if there were bits in it that I didn’t get, then I’d let them go or think of another way of doing it.”
This is a typically irreverent approach to the classics that has become part of Blood of the Young’s stock in trade. As one of a new generation of companies making their mark, as the name suggests, BOTY are hungry to infuse a fresh energy into the theatre scene. This has been the case since McArthur, Brotherston and a coterie of like-minded multi-taskers got together after graduating from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s one-year masters course in Classical and Contemporary Text.
“We left the course thinking we needed to set something up,” says McArthur.
The first fruits of this came at the start of 2016 by way of a collaboration with Edinburgh-based indie-pop band Golden Arm, whose songs were given to writers Clare Duffy and Isabel Wright as well as core company member Meghan Tyler and McArthur herself. The responses formed a piece of gig theatre called The Golden Arm Theatre Show.
“It was done on a shoestring,” remembers McArthur, “and everyone was working jobs to fund it, but we wanted to make a bit of a statement of intent.”
Next up was Secret Show 1, in which the audience had no idea what they were about to watch. As it was, it turned out to be a wildly unhinged 80-minute reimagining of a Shakespeare classic. Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World of Sound, may have been a more formal full-length work, but McArthur and Brotherston’s playful study of electronic music pioneer Oram was made even more ambitious. This was not just because of the presence of ex Conquering Animal Sound sonic alchemist Anneke Kampman onstage, but the fact that McArthur also played the lead.
McArthur became a playwright “out of necessity. I had to write something to be in. I’d always been interested in writing and making theatre as well as acting, and I think all performers now have to be able to do all these different things. Part of that is because there’s not much money to do things, but it also makes things more fun.
So much theatre in Scotland draws from that whole Wildcat idea of everyone on stage being able to sing and play instruments as well as act, so it’s almost music hall. We were captivated as well by physical theatre language and the sorts of things companies like Kneehigh were doing in terms of fusing that with music, and I suppose with Pride and Prejudice we’re trying to fuse all those elements, but in our own way.”
McArthur’s family originally hailed from Castlemilk, but she grew up in Manchester, where “I was lucky enough to be taken by my parents to a couple of plays.”
Wanting to be part of the world she saw onstage, she joined her local church hall youth theatre and drama group, and “I never let go of it,” she says.
With Blood of the Young currently company in residence with the National Theatre of Scotland, beyond the gang mentality of the ensemble’s collective ideal, McArthur is happy to play more regular roles. She played the dormouse and the mock turtle in Anthony Neilson’s take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at the Lyceum, Edinburgh, in Mike Bartlett’s play, Cock, at the Tron, and was most recently an American abroad in Peter Arnott’s stage adaptation of The Monarch of the Glen at Pitlochry Festival Theatre.
“I love working collaboratively,” says McArthur. “It’s really fulfilling creating something from the beginning, but sometimes it’s nice to start a job where you’re given a script and told what to do and not have to head-swap.”
As soon as she’s finished on Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of), McArthur begins work on the Citizens Theatre/National Theatre of Scotland’s revival of the late Edwin Morgan’s stage version of Cyrano de Bergerac. Given the audaciousness of Communicado Theatre’s original staging more than a quarter of a century ago, the umbilical links with Blood of the Young aren’t hard to spot.
For now, however, it is her own reimagining of a classic that must concern McArthur most.
“Pride and Prejudice tells a story about human understanding, and getting to grips with your own character flaws,” she says. “In an age where we’re still wrapped up with the idea of finding true love, it’s about what happens when you get things wrong and you have to reconsider and how you deal with that. I think that’s something that still endures today, and we can have fun with that.”
Pride and Prejudice* (*Sort Of), Tron Theatre, Glasgow, June 28-July 14.
The Herald, June 26th 2018